Germans Embrace Online Shopping

German consumers have long been skeptical of e-commerce. But pandemic restrictions coupled with the sheer convenience of it have won Europe’s most conservative shoppers over to Internet retail platforms, as one sector in particular illustrates.

March 2021

In some parts of Berlin, the blue thermal containers worn by bicycle couriers are now as ubiquitous as the yellow of the city’s public transport authority. In August, the Finnish restaurant delivery service Wolt set up shop in the German capital as part of a global expansion drive, and they haven’t looked back.

“Berlin is the fastest-growing city for us in terms of the first months since launch, and there’s clear demand for our service,” says Patrick Dümer, regional manager for Wolt Nordics & Baltics. The Helsinki-based company began operations in 2015 and is now present in 23 countries and 100 cities.

German online food sales in the third quarter of 2020 shot up by 52.9 percent (year on year), grossing EUR 633 million, according to the German e-commerce association bevh. Wolt has also benefited from consolidation in the sector and is now one of only two main players in Berlin, along with Lieferando, the German subsidiary of Dutch company Takeaway.com. Both firms are great examples of how international companies can take advantage of what amounts to a sea change in consumer habits in Germany.

“Germans have traditionally been quite skeptical about e-commerce, but Covid-19 has now given them a bit of a push toward online retail,” says Germany Trade & Invest’s e-commerce expert Johannes Fischer. “For many Germans, it’s frankly kind of exciting that we can do our daily shopping online.”

The Bottom Line

Once wary of e-commerce, German consumers are now embracing online retail in a big way, opening up new business opportunities – as the food and beverage sector demonstrates.

Huge market, helpful government

And food isn’t the only thing flying off online retailers’ shelves. In the second quarter of 2020, the apex of the first wave of the pandemic, German online sales leapt 16.5 percent (year on year) to EUR 20 billion. The corresponding Q3 figures were 13.3 percent and EUR 19.3 billion, even as coronavirus restrictions were eased.

Of course, this is not all down to corona. German e-commerce has been growing by EUR 400–500 million per annum in recent years. Ironically, overall growth rates might be down slightly in 2020 because of corona-related disruptions to the travel industry, electronic event tickets and other sectors.

Wolt became interested in Germany not just because of its market size but also because of the country’s welcoming attitude. “We were impressed by some of the government investment agencies reaching out to us proactively to offer their help once we announced we would launch in Germany,” Dümer says. “Beyond that, Germany is a technologically advanced country, with a high mobile-phone penetration, high GDP growth and high purchase parity. Germans are very educated.”

© Manuel Köpp/Kammann Rossi

Germany’s most popular consumer goods online

E-commerce growth in Germany in the third quarter of 2020 (compared year on year)

52.9%

Food

42.0%

Pharmaceuticals

19.5%

Home furnishing appliances

12.2%

Clothing

6.1%

Entertainment

Source: Bundesverband E-Commerce und Versandhandel

Door-to-door food and drink

In addition to restaurant food, home delivered groceries and beverages represent an important and promising German market. Dr. Oetker, Germany’s largest food company and largest brewing conglomerate, recognized that back in 2017, when it launched the Durstexpress beverage delivery service. In October, it agreed to buy rival flaschenpost for a reported EUR 1 billion – an indicator of the strength of the market.

The German grocery sector is worth about EUR 250 billion. Germany’s biggest grocery store chains, EDEKA and REWE, now operate their own delivery services. Amazon Fresh is also up and running in Germany, but demand for their services is so great that consumers in German cities often have to wait to get a delivery slot.

That means plenty of market potential for other, local services and international businesses. Picnic, which has a Dutch parent company, has begun serving the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the Czech company Rohlik is expanding to Munich under the name Knuspr. There is plenty of scope and capacity for similar services in other German cities and regions, too.

Moreover, traditional e-commerce staples like clothing still offer plenty of growth potential. Chinese discount fashion retailer Shein, for example, has recently started doing business in Germany. It’s a trend that is unlikely to stop, regardless of how the coronavirus pandemic pans out.

Online Growth

2020 was the year the average German consumer got on board with Internet shopping. Food delivery, software and services, and consumer goods are just some of the online sectors that surged.

Consumer goods: Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, but shopping habits long remained conservative. Last year, however, German consumers really embraced online shopping. Average revenue per user shot up from EUR 1,091 to EUR 1,244 between 2019 and 2020 and is expected to climb to EUR 1,303 in 2021.

Food delivery: Younger Germans have acquired a taste for eating well while staying in, and older people have discovered the convenience of takeouts. The number of Germans enjoying restaurant delivery is expected to grow 9 percent to 14.3 million this year.

Online services: Working from home and remote learning weren’t new when corona hit, but the pandemic has opened up markets for video conferencing, online tools and remote education. The German government’s digital education pact contains the equivalent of EUR 500 spent per pupil or student.

B2B: German companies have also come around to online solutions, whether that’s finding the perfect supplier or using software-as-a-service to control costs. Some 63 percent of German companies in a recent digital industry association survey said the use of digital platforms is key to their corporate future.

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